September 27, 2012
Talking shop with an indie bookseller
by Kevin Murphy
This is a new and occasional series that asks some of our favorite independent booksellers a handful of simple questions. The questions are the same, but the answers (predictably) vary. If you’re interested in the business of bookselling, read on for a quick shot of indie insight — this week, it comes compliments of author, publisher, and bookseller Kevin Sampsell, from Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.
1) Could you tell us something of the history of your bookstore? What’s your role there?
Powell’s just turned 41 years old and I’ve worked here for almost 15 years. It’s the largest independent bookstore in the United States and arguably the world. I started off as a holiday temp and within a year I was scheduling the readings. It was pretty crazy. About ten years ago, I also took over the small press section and run that area of the store. I also do my fair share of the usual bookstore tasks like cashiering, shelving books, making displays, and doing customer service. My business cards say: Events Coordinator and Small Press Champion. That doesn’t mean that I am the champion of small presses, but I do champion them!
2) What got you into selling books? What keeps you inspired, or I guess what keeps you dejected if that’s how you’re feeling lately?
I didn’t know I would be working at a bookstore actually. Before Powell’s, I ran an espresso cart business for about five years. But I loved shopping at Powell’s and buying books and discovering writers. Having a love of books is one of the things that Powell’s looks for in its employees obviously. It says that in the application and job descriptions. And Powell’s is a busy store! I have to be sharp when I’m giving out recommendations to customers. People have very specific needs when it comes to their reading. I can recommend certain popular books just from word-of-mouth (“A lot of people are talking about this” or “I heard that this is really good.”) but I get especially excited when people are looking for things in the small press section or just want something more obscure or different. We get customers like that all the time. It’s awesome to have a job where I can walk around and talk about my favorite books and writers with someone for thirty minutes — and I do that pretty often. I try to think of all the times when someone suggested books to me early on. I have very clear memories of being told about certain writers. A used bookstore guy in Arkansas telling me about Kafka and Brautigan. An employee at Half Price Books in Seattle handing me a Dennis Cooper book when I said I was into William S. Burroughs. And even more recently when a friend of mine told me to read Leonard Michaels and a woman read a Sharon Olds poem to me in the poetry section.
3) If your bookstore were to be granted one wish—by the ghost of Sylvia Beach, let’s say—what would it be?
For me, personally, it would be to bring some of my favorite recently deceased authors back to life and have them read at the store. I would have loved to introduce Harry Crews or William Gay, but I never got the chance to even meet them.
4) Which books do you love to hand-sell to customers?
I feel like I have a pretty solid no-fail arsenal of recommendations for people. For customers looking for something wild and uncategorizable, I show them Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth; for funny stuff that’s not cheesy, I show them Sam Lipsyte; for a cool and sweet coming-of-age book, I grab Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness; for great emotional memoirs there’s Yuknavitch, Strayed, and Darin Strauss’s Half a Life; if someone is looking for something groundbreaking and unlike anything else, I go for Ben Marcus; and for can’t-miss literary journals, I’ll point out Noon or Pank.
5) What’s one book, ours or otherwise, that you’re looking forward to?
I got an unexpected package from Norton the other day with a copy of the upcoming Nick Flynn memoir, The Reenactments. It comes out in January. His first memoir, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, is one of my all-time favorites. There are so many books coming out all the time, it’s hard to keep up!